Traveling to Russia in the middle of winter...worth it

Diver: Randy Thornton Photographer: Michael Thornton

“Hey dad do you want to go dive Orda Cave in Russia with me and Nick?” “Sure, when?” “December!” “What is wrong with you? No one goes to Russia in the middle of the freezing winter” “That’s the only time my wife gave me permission to go…. so, do you want to go?” “Of course.”

Every diver has a bucket list of sites they dream of visiting. Some sites make the list because they are beautiful, some for the adrenaline, others because of their remote location and some for their uniqueness. Finding something out of the ordinary is one of the most exciting aspects of diving. Orda Cave ticks all of the boxes for a bucket list dive. So, time to analyze what is involved in diving there and then ask yourself is it worth it?

Diver: Randy Thornton Photographer: Michael Thornton

SCUBA Diving is an equipment intensive sport. Technical Diving is an equipment ridiculous sport. Cold water technical diving is an equipment exhausting sport. One of the most tiring aspects of cold-water diving is suiting up. Orda has a cabin for gearing up. Inside the cabin there is one small heated room that is designed for drying out equipment. The benefit of diving Orda in the winter is the lack of other dive teams. This week in December there was only one other group with the same loose screw enticing them to go cave diving in Russia during the winter. So, we were able to use this drying room to dress into our drysuits and escape the hypothermic cabin. After suiting up we had to make it down to the cave. At least we knew we there was no danger of overheating in our drysuits.

We started walking down these nice wooden steps and I was thinking to myself “this is a lot of steps but it’s not too bad” and then the steps end. After leaving the sturdy wooden steps we came to a steep dirt pathway with a rope to keep from sliding down the snow and ice into a hole in the mountain ending in freezing cold water. The dirt hill is broken up by a few metal rebar contraptions that hope to be ladders when they grow up. The rebar is well protected by ice just to keep the footwork interesting while balancing my camera housing that would require me to sell a kidney just to cover the insurance deductible. Just before we hit the water level, we came to an icy platform with benches that would give OSHA a heart attack. The ice-rink of a platform was a welcome sight because we had somewhere to gear up close to the water.

Diver: Randy Thornton Photographer: Michael Thornton

We descended one last shady rebar ladder into a crystal clear headpole. If the excitement of the water clarity didn’t take our breaths away, the temperature did -- (40F / 5C). After our final checks, we descended. At the bottom of the headpole lies a small opening just large enough for a diver in doubles to slide through and drop into a much larger chamber branching off into multiple tunnels. We continued down the main line which quickly opened up into an immensely spacious chamber large enough to park a jumbo jet. The perfectly clear water made other divers appear to be floating in thin air. The geology of Orda is full of gypsum crystal so the walls sparkle more than a Disney princess’ tiara.

There are caves all around the world. The Bahamas, Mexico and Florida all sound warmer and are all easier to get to from the US. What is so special about Orda? Orda is not at sea level. That alone makes the geology different from a lot of other popular cave destinations. The geology of a mountain range typically differs from that of a compressed ancient coral bed. Some of the rock formations looked fake because they were so perfect. Your average solution formed cave can twist and turn in interesting maze-like tunnels, but doesn’t typically produce cube shaped boulders that look like they were cut out by a machine.

Photographer: Randy Thornton

There are many clear water caves in the world. However, even after visiting spectacular caves on 5 different continents, I have never seen anything like it. In The white walls in Orda are the original natural color. The sparkle throughout gives the walls a unique shimmer I have not encountered anywhere else. Photographing the large glittery chambers is amazing but it does not come close to the feeling of experiencing it for yourself.

Diver: Nick Pyat, Photographer: Michael Thornton

Clear water with trapped air ceilings makes for awesome picture backdrops. Orda has sections where the ceiling traps exhaled bubbles as well as larger dry chambers you can surface in. Many shallow caves have stretched that are above the water table creating “dry sections”. This is a common occurrence in Mexico. Many of these dry sections in Mexican caves are close to the surface, and consequently, are full or roots, dirt, small openings of light etc. The dry chambers in Orda still have a small mountain on top of them, so the cave has almost identical appearance above and below the water line. Some of these dry chambers were large enough that an entire team of divers could exit the water.

Divers: Randy Thornton, Nick Pyat, Photographer: Michael Thornton

Our team has an ongoing joke about buying ice cream after diving in extremely cold water. Orda cave is located near a small village with no ice cream shop nearby so we planned ahead and bought it on the way. We left the ice cream on the table INSIDE the cabin, which could have doubled as a meat locker, and proceeded to do a 3-hour dive. The ice cream, just like the divers, was still very much frozen after the dive.

Divers: Randy Thornton, Nick Pyat, Michael Thornton Photographer: Michael Thornton

The closest hotel is a 1-hour drive but you can stay in cabins on site. Since Orda is in a small town with no restaurants we thought staying in the hotel would be easier. We ordered lunch delivered to Orda made by a local woman. Had we known how delicious her home cooking was going to be we would have had her make breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Visiting most of the lined passages of Orda we hit a max depth of 53ft (16m). With an average depth, normally around less than 40ft (12m), we never had any decompression obligation. When you are diving in cold water it is convenient to be able to exit when you decide the numbing sensation in your head is no longer an enjoyable experience. Knowing you do not have to finish deco shivering means you can spend all the time you want exploring without worrying about a miserable deco stop.

With no crowds during the winter, we decided to leave all of our equipment down inside the cave on the gear prepping platform. The only thing that needed to go in and out were our tanks, cameras and any batteries to be charged. (I wasn’t about to forgo the battery for my heated vest) We hired some local sherpas (worth every ruble) who were much stronger than I am to carry the tanks in and out.

Many caves have excellent visibility. Fewer have water so clear that if the walls didn’t have turns you might be able to see forever. Many of the crystal-clear caves like Devil’s Eye cave in Florida maintain some of their clarity with lots of flow or current. Orda has no flow and is still one of the clearest caves I have witnessed. With no flow you can easily swim to the end of the line and down all of the side tunnels, including the ones labeled side mount. The smaller tunnels were fun but the open chambers that swallow every lumen of your video lights are what makes Orda cave a bucket list worthy dive.

Diver: Michael Thornton Photographer: Randy Thornton

Consensus: Yes! Orda Cave and everything required to dive there is absolutely worth it. If you can avoid the winter, even better.

P.S. A translator is essential.

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